PEN America Report Documents Massive Spike in Book Bans

Free speech defend PEN America this week released a new report that seeks to put numbers to the current wave of book banning across the nation. The report titled Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights includes an Index of School Book Bans, a spreadsheet that documents “the alarming spike in censorship of books in school districts across the country over the past nine months” with 1,586 book bans and restrictions in 86 school districts across 26 states, targeting some 1,145 unique book titles.

In its report, PEN also found that the vast majority of book bans, some 98%, did not adhere to established guidelines and best practices in place for challenging materials is school and on library shelves.

“It is not just the number of books removed that is disturbing, but the processes–or lack thereof–through which such removals are being carried out,” the report states. “Objections and challenges to books available in school are nothing new, and parents and citizens are within their rights to voice concerns about the appropriateness and suitability of particular books. In order to protect the First Amendment rights of students in public schools, though, procedural safeguards have been designed to help ensure that districts follow transparent, unbiased, established procedures, particularly when it comes to the review of library holdings.”

The report also confirms that the overwhelming majority of books being targeted involve “race, racism, sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • The Index lists 1,586 book bans that have occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states between July 1, 2021 and March 31 of this year, representing 2,899 schools with a combined enrollment of over two million students.
  • These bans have targeted 1,145 unique book titles by 874 different authors, impacting the literary, scholarly, and creative work of 1,081 people altogether.
  • Texas led the country with the most bans at 713; followed by Pennsylvania (456); Florida (204); Oklahoma (43); Kansas (30); and Tennessee (16).

Among titles in the index:

  • 467 titles (41%) included protagonists or prominent secondary characters who were people of color.
  • 247 titles (22%) directly address issues of race and racism.
  • 379 titles (33%) explicitly address LGBTQ themes, or have LGBTQ protagonists or prominent secondary characters.
  • 184 titles (16%) are history books or biographies. 107 have explicit or prominent themes related to rights and activism (9%).
  • 42 children’s books were censored, including biographies of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, Duke Ellington, Katherine Johnson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cesar Chavez, Sonia Sotomayor, Nelson Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai.
  • The majority of the targeted books have been works of fiction, however 28% are nonfiction and include history books, analytical and/or personal essays, and children’s reference and informational works.

“Book challenges in American schools are nothing new, but this type of data has never been tallied and quite frankly the results are shocking,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program and lead author of the report, in a statement.”What is happening in this country in terms of banning books in schools is unparalleled in its frequency, intensity, and success.”

In addition to bans and restrictions, PEN America has also been tracking the spike in educational gag orders being proposed by lawmakers across the country, which seek to restrict the materials and books that teachers can use in the classroom. Since January 2021, PEN found 175 “educational gag order” bills have been introduced in 40 different states; 15 have become law in 13 states; 103 similar bills are currently under consideration, of which 97 target K-12 schools and 42 target higher education.

The report comes as the American Library Association this week released its annual list of the top 10 most challenged books, finding a significant increase in the number of book challenges over previous years. ALA officials reported tracking 729 challenges to library, school and university materials in 2021, resulting in more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals. By comparison, ALA tracked 377 challenges in 2019 (2020 numbers were skewed by library and school closures in the wake of Covid-19).

The spike in book bans was also the subject of a congressional hearing yesterday held by Rep. Jamie Raskin.

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